Food helps this Old East Dallas neighbor remember his Hungarian family, his heritage

Sandor Korponai pours noodles into a pan to continue cooking at home. Photograph by Emil Lippe.

IIf you’re strolling through Old East Dallas and smelling the warm aroma of onion and garlic cooking, accompanied by a generous sprinkle of paprika, chances are you’re near Sandor’s. Korponai. His Hungarian dishes are tasty, but they also come with family memories and a great deal of history.

Korponai works long days in global financial technology and often cooks for relaxation. He regards his paprika chicken and noodles as comfort food, not only for the flavors but also for the connection it brings to his ancestors.

In 1956, Hungarians took to the streets to protest against the repressive communist regime and Soviet influence in the country. During the revolution, Korponai’s grandfather ended up in a prison camp outside of Budapest, but he managed to escape and return to the small town where he lived with his family.

From left to right, portraits of Sandor’s father and two of his uncles hang on the wall of his office at home. Photograph by Emil Lippe.

“My grandmother had had enough,” says Korponai. The family, including Korponai’s father and two uncles (aged 10, 8 and 6 at the time) fled the country on bicycles, traveling about 20 miles to Austria, where they found refuge in a catholic convent.

As refugees, they were sent to London, and while there Korponai’s grandmother learned that her brother had arrived in the United States. She started saving money and working to get documents to go to America.

In 1957, they had the required papers and came to the United States aboard the RMS Queen Mary.

When they landed at Ellis Island and cleared customs and immigration, they headed to Milwaukee and got housing and jobs.

“My father and his brothers went to primary school and learned English, and my grandparents worked in different factories,” he says.

Sandor Korponai keeps his grandmother’s cooking utensils at home for making noodles. Photograph by Emil Lippe.

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Korponai has vivid memories of visiting his grandmother’s house and watching her cook.

“She usually had something on the stove, some kind of Hungarian dish.” he says. “One of the things I brought home from grandma’s house is that there’s always a hot meal and a cold drink at my table.”

Boiling in the pot could be chicken soup or one of Korponai’s favorite dishes: chicken with Hungarian paprikas. A dish made with a whole chicken, simmered in a paprika and sour cream sauce.

“I particularly remember Grandma preparing the noodles for the chicken with paprikas. The noodles are called nokedli and she would start with a big bowl of flour, drop in some eggs, water, salt and beat it all together. Mind you, there was nothing measured, so that’s how I learned.

He recalls: “She would end up with this kind of slimy mess, and then she would pull out a utensil that looked like a grater. She had a special paddle that she used for this and she would drop the dough she had made on this grater and run her paddle over it and the noodles would fall into the boiling water. These noodles would come out of the hot water and she would put them in a skillet, maybe with a little butter or a little oil, and she would crisp them up for me.

Korponai’s mother, who was born in the United States, tried to learn the ins and outs of Hungarian cuisine, but Grandma didn’t make it easy.

“She must have been sneaking around watching my grandmother cook these dishes,” says Korponai. “Grandma would never tell you what was in what she cooked. She was just like, ‘Oh…you know.’ Besides, she was still trying to sneak in her special ingredient, so you had to keep an eye out for the old maid.

His mother, and later Korponai himself, would bring home as much of the recipe as they could remember and try to cook it.

Sandor Korponai pours stew into a bowl of noodles to make pörkölt at his home. Photograph by Emil Lippe.

Korponai apparently picked up a fair amount by observing Grandma. He frequently cooks for himself and others and is often called upon to prepare dishes for events.

“When I cook paprikás chicken for my friends and family, they all love it. They said, ‘Oh my God, what did you put here, how long did it take to do this, this is my absolute favorite.’ When they hear about the simple ingredients that go into making it, and generally how quickly I can whip it up, they just fume and rave.

He adds: “I think everyone’s favorite food is the noodles and the sauce. If I prepare chicken with paprikas, I often go I need to double my noodle recipe and make sure to make more sauce as they will be bringing dishes with them to take home leftovers.”

Its magic ingredient?

“I will say that my secret is that my paprika comes from Hungary. I don’t buy just any paprika at the store.

Fate and a daring one-bike escape eventually brought Korponai to land in Old East Dallas where he lovingly honors his family’s history in his kitchen.

“Traditional Hungarian cuisine makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. It gives you the comfort you need after a long day,” he says. “The nostalgia and smells of Hungarian cuisine make you think about your heritage, your roots, where you come from.”

A bowl of pörkölt sits on a counter at Sandor Korponai’s home. Photograph by Emil Lippe.

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